Quote of the Day

I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand’.

–Anselm of Canterbury

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. It was very much to the credit of the first Norman kings of England, hard and practical men, that they went shopping for top-flight and prickly intellectuals as Archbishops of Canterbury rather than pliant second-raters. Lanfranc was able and learned by the standards of the time, Amselm by those of any time. My small tribute was here.

        1. If Frank is right that “Belief, in every case, precludes understanding,” then it stands to reason that Frank’s own belief that belief precludes understanding must also preclude understanding.

          Similarly, your article of faith — that faith and reason are incompatible — if true (I’m going to pretend that you’re not being ironic here) must therefore be incompatible with reason.

          1. No, not being ironic at all. If you say belief in anything precludes understanding then, yes, obviously there is a paradox. That’s only possible, however, if you unmoor the discussion from what I understand to be its obvious context, namely, religious faith (and strong religious faith, in particular).

            The obvious problem with such faith is that it stifles exploration of all kinds because if every answer to every problem is conclusively presumed to be located only in a single place, then curiosity soon becomes heresy. Science, philosophy, politics and human development all suffer when deviation from orthodoxy is dangerous. Advances are only possible with strong patrons willing to offer protection and even then advances are limited because even the strong, best established thinkers are well aware of the boundaries and the consequences for pushing against them. A mild example of this would be Hume’s refusal to declare himself an atheist even though it is clear from his writing that he surely must be one.

            Do not waste your time on sophistry. Consider instead the broad sweeps of human history—from the Inquisitions to the burning of witches to the ostracism and attacks on scientists who work on climate change. The list of victims is endless. How can you say that religious faith is in any way compatible with reason? It seems to me that the lesson of history is that faith is the mortal enemy of reason.

        2. I think you have confused religious faith with fundamentalism. A person of faith might believe that, in some way, all answers “come from” God, whatever that means, but in no way would such a person be required to believe that s/he knew what the answers were, or that they can be clearly understood from a religious text. It is my firm(-ish) belief that people believe in the God they expect or want. And in no way does this determine God. And most Christians aren’t creationist, iirc.

          1. Your argument proves my point, at least with respect to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yes, people with relatively weak or even nominal religious beliefs might say “all answers come from God,” much as it is a modern American convention for politicians, clerics and football coaches to seek divine guidance when they face difficult choices. It’s common now to hear such people talk about “praying for the answer” or to invoke religious authority for decisions in politics or football and it is increasingly customary to “give thanks to God” for one’s salvation or election or successful touchdown pass. I think it’s an open question whether this increase in public displays of piety represent increased religiousness, increased hucksterism or merely a new social convention.

            What is clear is that the greater intensity of faith, the greater the harm to human and scientific development. I offer James Ussher as a perfect example. A genuinely brilliant and gifted man, his need (even as a true moderate) to impose religious conformity on Ireland was disastrous. More to the point, his misunderstanding of the difference between religious “scholarship” and the scientific method has made him a figure of ridicule—you will remember, that it was Bishop Ussher who place the date of creation with precision.

            Where he went wrong was that he focused not on the “age of rocks” (science) but on the “rock of ages” (biblical scholarship). It was his great faith that lead him to folly.

          2. Mitch, what is this “greater intensity of faith?” Do you mean fundamentalism? Because if so, I agree with you, it’s bad. It also is not the same as faith in general. They really are two different things. There are a lot of people who don’t see the world in black and white who nonetheless think there’s more to the world than what we see. Most of the religious people I know simply can’t be categorized the way you try to do. And I don’t know this Usher person or give a hooey about him. I think Ireland is going through a painful transition, but it will be a better and stronger country for it, I have faith. Religion doesn’t have to mean blindness.

    1. Douglas Adams comes to mind:

      Now it is such a bizarrely improbably coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful [the Babel fish] could have evolved by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
      The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
      “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED”
      “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

  2. It may go deeper than that; belief may a condition for perception.

    A quote from Terence McKenna: “If I hadn’t believed it, I’d never have seen it.”

    This is a principle easier to appreciate in others than in ourselves. Consider the response of the birthers to Obama’s release of his long form birth certificate. They saw multiple layers in the pdf document with telltale white dots and pixels which are invisible to the ordinary eye, but plain as day to them.

    If they had not believed it, they never would have seen it.

    The birthers may not be the only ones affected by this principle of belief preceding perception.

    1. Science depends on the principle for many discoveries. Belief that there could be, for example, such a thing as a Higgs Boson is driving the search for it. If everyone was sure there was no such thing, they would never look for it and never find it.

      1. I would put it this way:

        Theory (the incredible effectiveness of mathematics) shows that the Higgs Boson may exist in such-and-such a gigavolt range, and so by searching for it there, we may actually find it, or if not, we may find hints of something we never imagined. (For example: Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation was a complete surprise to the experimenters.)

        Thus we see the incredible effectiveness of science:

        When something is proven to exist you learn something.
        When something proves not to exist you learn something.
        Meanwhile serendipity lurks in the background like a pair of dice…
        Or as Pasteur had it: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

    2. Exactly, the “evidence of things unseen” distorts reality making it impossible to see what’s real and far too easy to see what isn’t real but which you faith tells you must be real.

  3. In context, the quote is clearly about Christian belief specifically, not (for example) an evidence-based belief that some scientific theory is correct in predicting some observation not yet made. It’s not clear what he meant by “understanding,” more Christian belief I suppose.

    If by “understanding” one means some kind of reality-based, scientific understanding of the world as it actually is, as Frank does, then I’d agree with Frank that faith is antithetical to understanding, or at least a strong headwind against it.

  4. I don’t find it difficult to be a rational man of faith when the realm of scientific uncertainty is so vast. But Mitch Guthman is like other scientific rationalists I know, who have a binary outlook — to them it doesn’t matter if you think of yourself as a rational sort of Christian, e.g., a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” Methodist like me, you are nevertheless on the slippery slope to unreasoning fundamentalism so you’re already there. God or not-God, no middle ground. And of course we get hit just as hard from the opposite direction by the fundamentalists, who cherry-pick the Bible to denounce the progress we of reasonable Protestant persuasion have made with regard to women’s equality in the community of faith, distancing ourselves from homophobic misogyny, etc. I’ve come to accept all this as part of my daily burden; as we used to say back in the day, “there it is.”

    1. Yes — they remind me of atheists who try to deny they are religious. Anything you have to explain away that hard, is probably at least a little bit true.

      1. Atheists DO deny being religious. Only Christians seems to have a problem with taking us at our word on that.

  5. NCG,

    My last answer was a bit dismissive and a cheap shot. Let me give you an example of a dangerous man of intense religious faith who was arguably not a “fundamentalist” in the way in which we use that term in America today.

    Leaving aside the “hero or villain” debate, I don’t think that Oliver Cromwell, for instance, was a Christian fundamentalist but he was sure a man of extraordinary religious convictions who believed that his interpretation of the Christian faith should govern every aspect of the lives of the English and Irish peoples. The intensity of his faith destroyed Ireland and nearly destroyed England, too. Every aspect of English life, including science and the freedom to publish and to speak, suffered horribly during his rule. This is an example of what I mean when I say that intense religious faith is a destructive force.

    Even more extreme behavior is commonplace in religious Muslim and Jewish communities, as the most intolerant and hated filled men seek to rise in their faith as prophets who know God’s will and propose to enforce it violently. By an odd coincidence, it seems that the personal opinions of such men invariably coincide with God’s wishes for how men should live, just as forgiveness for their own sins is preordained.

    Can you show me where any good has come from allowing men to claim knowledge of God’s plan? Can you think of a greater presumption or blasphemy? Yet throughout history such blaspheming and evil has been commonplace among religious leaders and politicians who claim a divine mandate. And it is the accepted practice among Christians and Jews here, and among Muslims to an amazing degree. People of faith are trying to turn everyplace in theocracies with themselves as final arbiters of God’s will. Again, this is what I have in mind when I speak about “intensity of faith” and if you will just look at the world these people are making, I’m sure you will understand why I and so many others believe in the removal of religion from public life.

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